03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Healthcare Reform is Good for Older Americans

This week, the Healthcare Reform Bill finally made its way out of the Senate Finance Committee. While there has been much debate about this bill, most Americans simply don't know that the bill contains a provision that will protect older Americans from violence, abuse and neglect - it's called the Elder Justice Act (EJA).

Older Americans like New York socialite Brooke Astor (whose son was just convicted of stealing tens of millions of dollars from his aging and now deceased mother of 105 years) and my grandmother Bernice Matheson, along with millions of others all over the country, share one thing in common; they are victims of a hidden yet growing crisis in America: elder abuse.

Elder abuse refers to intentional or neglectful acts by a caregiver or "trusted" individual that lead to, or may lead to, harm of an elder. In almost 90% of the elder abuse and neglect incidents with a known perpetrator, the perpetrator is a family member, and two-thirds of the perpetrators are adult children or spouses. And, it is estimated that for every one case of elder abuse, neglect, exploitation, or self-neglect reported to authorities, at least five more go unreported.

Financial exploitation is one aspect of elder abuse. Financial elder abuse has been characterized by some experts as "the crime of the 21st century." Every year elder financial abuse robs older Americans -- along with those who would inherit the wealth -- of at least $2.6. billion. Every year medical care and services for elder abuse victims costs America more than $13 million. And with the graying of America, every year, these figures will undoubtedly grow.

My grandmother's story illustrates how statistics become reality. She lived alone in a small third floor apartment in Des Moines, Iowa, working as a secretary for the Kiwanis Club, spending with frugality in the hope that she would not outlive her savings. With my grandfather gone and dementia clouding her mind, she became a perfect target for a financial scam. The first was the door-to-door salesman who sold her two gold-plated John F. Kennedy coins valued at $2.00 for $900.00. The next was the funeral provider who sold her not just one funeral, but two. And that was just the beginning of a series of scams that cost her thousands of dollars and forced my parents to intervene on her behalf. Others aren't as lucky as my grandmother.

Wilson Smith was not so fortunate. He left his home in Carmel, California for his 60th high school reunion in Tennessee at the age of 78years. He stopped off in Las Vegas where a 20-something year old woman targeted him and took advantage of the fact that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. After gaining his trust, she gathered his financial information and within months had drained his bank account and ran up balances on at least 28 unauthorized credit cards to the tune of $750,000. Wilson's wife Pat, who is her 80's herself, is left dealing with the financial fallout, which has left her both financially and emotionally insecure.

Whether it's losing a few precious dollars for everyday living or an entire life savings, one thing is documented - a victim of any kind of elder financial abuse is never the same after the abuse occurs.

Sadly, stories like this are common in nearly every zip code in America. According to the best available estimates, up to five million Americans aged 65 or older have been injured, exploited or otherwise mistreated, largely by someone on whom they depended for care or protection.

The EJA will do more than protect our parents and grandparents from financial or material exploitation - it will also protect them from physical, sexual, emotional, psychological abuse, as well as abandonment, neglect, and self-neglect. Currently, there are federal laws governing domestic violence and child abuse, but none related to elder abuse. The Act has been under consideration by Congress for years, but never as close to passage as it is now. The Act would finally provide the increased federal resources and leadership to prevent, detect, treat, understand, intervene in and, where appropriate, prosecute elder abuse.

If passed, the EJA will be the first time our country has made a national statement about the right of older Americans to be free from abuse, neglect and exploitation. The EJA will also provide federal resources that would help prevent elder abuse -- protecting both the older Americans of today, and laying the foundation for the future for all of us, who are assured of at least one thing in our life-- aging.